As if once was not enough, I happened to choose Aeroflot, the Russian airlines, once again. However, this time it was to fly into Russia only, and I was not looking for a cheaper ticket to fly to Europe or US. This year, in any case, air tickets for flying to London or New York are way down the price tag even on prestigious European airlines, and it does not make sense to go there by budget airlines. The first time I was on board Aeroflot was way back in 1983 when I was working in Addis Ababa. I was to attend a conference at London (it was ironic that Pan-African Psychiatric Conference was being held in London), and with limited resources was looking for a cheaper air ticket. People advised me to fly Aeroflot as it offered London ticket at half of the price. It only involved a change at Moscow. With very limited international flying experience, I had no idea what this ‘change’ involved. Buying the ticket was another issue. Aeroflot office in Addis Ababa would sell cheaper ticket only if it was paid in hard currency, that is, British pound. That also meant buying ticket in England only. Though I had friends there, but communicating with them was not easy. In 1983, there were no emails or faxes, and telephone calls were exhorbitantly expensive. And most of my friends were in the initial stages of their careers and were shifting their addresses quite often. However, I still managed to establish contact with Late Prof G. Morris Carstairs, the reputed psychiatrist and ex-Vice Chancellor of University of Edinburgh, whom I had the priviledge of knowing since my PGI, Chandigarh days. He responded immediately and offered to buy Aeroflot ticket for me. When I met him later in London during this very conference, he would remark that it was not easy to buy this ticket. The confirmed ticket was issued by the Addis Ababa office of Aeroflot, I would reach Moscow late in the evening (or early next morning) after having three stopovers at Aden, Cairo, and Odessa. My Moscow-London flight was by noon time. I was to spend night in the hotel provided by the airlines. I must have been the only non-Russian in the entire flight which was full of Soviet nationals who were returning home from Ethiopia. Ethiopia had large presence of Soviets at that time being under socialist influence. When the flight landed at Aden, its first stopover, I was surprised at the scene inside the cabin. Even before the aircraft came to a halt, there was a queue in front of the exit with passengers holding green dollars in their both the hands. No sooner were they allowed to get out, they started running towards the lounge. Not understanding anything, I was careful and just walked and obviously reached last by which time all had entered the only duty free shop at the Aden airport, and were clinging to various electronic items and denims. Within 10 minutes all the shelves of the duty free shop were kind of stripped of each and every item by them. During Soviet period, all these ‘phoren’ items were not available in the Republic but Soviet citizens working abroad were allowed to bring in these items. We were served lunch after Aden, and the air-hostess was dumbfounded when I asked for vegetarian food. However, she was sympathetic when she learnt that I took no meat or fish. She assembled a tray for me with bread, salad, fruit etc; on learning that I could egg, she prepared omelet for me and also offered me the Russian delicacy, caviar. At Moscow, the Sheremetyevo airport looked bright and huge, but devoid of people. It had been renovated for the Moscow Olympics in 1980. At the transit desk, I felt uncomfortable when the officer there retained my passport and indicated through gestures that I would get it back before my next flight to London. The hotel room was very basic. Next morning, which came only a few hours later, my name was missing from the London flight. I protested to the hotel staff, but they were of no help. There was no common language between us. In the dinning hall, I met many other Europeans who were there for 3 to 7 days waiting for their connecting flights having come from some remote parts of Africa. Aeroflot was providing link to many parts of Africa and European cities via Moscow. I was much much relieved when I read my name next morning in the list, got back my passport at the airport, and was boarded into the plane leaving for London. Return flight two weeks later was, however, smooth and without hiccups. However, in retrospect I felt I should have chosen the more expensive route of flying to London by some other airlines.
This time around, since I was attending a conference, in the Russian city of St Petersburg only, I was not anxious of flying Aeroflot. I was at my home turf, Chitra was with me, and we could buy ticket from any vendor in INR. We had no problem with the airlines, but the agent in Delhi did not provide good service. Inspite of my clearly asking for a veg meal, and she having confirmed it, our name was not in the list for veg meal. From Delhi flight we had no problem, but from Moscow to Delhi flight, we had to wait till the airhostess could manage to put together a veg meal for us. By the way, Aeroflot does not serve liquor on the flight, but you may buy your drinks. There is however abundant supply of fruit juices and aerated drinks. And it does not pamper you with eatables every hour. The agent also did not tell us that like Delhi, international and domestic terminals were at least 10-12 km apart. Our flight at Moscow landed on time, Moscow-St Petersburg flight was two hours later. We could not figure out where to go for reaching terminal II or domestic terminal. Information desk provided very little information on how to reach there. The shuttle service was only at 2-hourly interval, and we were losing precious minutes. The cab drivers were all over us and asking for an exhorbitant sum to take to the domestic terminal. Finally we teamed up with two Indian students who were also going to St Petersburg by the same flight and hired a cab. By the time we reached there, very little time was left and while we were in the queue, the flight closed right before us. We went to the ticketing counter to rebook us on the next flight. However, the salesgirl told us that our fair basis did not allow us that luxury; we would have to pay a hefty penalty. The amount she quoted was tantamount to buying a new ticket. I declared we had no money, and we had come all the way to attend a conference little realizing that reaching domestic terminal from the international one would involve such an effort. She took pity on us and called her supervisor who seemed to know good English. She took no time in deciding the matter and rebooked us on the next flight without charging us a single paisa, or I should say, a single kopek. We all were much relieved, and thanked her profusely.
More on St Petersburg and Moscow in next posts
Russian Joke: A mummy was found in Egypt. The archaeologists could not determine its origin. Then a Soviet advisor offered his help. The mummy was delivered to the Soviet embassy. In two hours the Soviet advisor appeared and said, "His name was Amenkhotep 23 rd."
"How did you find out?"
"He confessed," the advisor said.